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Willi Sitte & Monika Geilsdorf 


Monika Geilsdorf, Self-Portrait, 1976. Brandenburgisches Landesmuseum für moderne Kunst, Photo: Winfried Mausolf © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Willi Sitte, Self-Portrait with Paint Tube and Safety Helmet, 1984. Hasso Plattner Collection © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

In the first INTERPLAY at DAS MINSK Kunsthaus in Potsdam, two painted self-portraits meet: the Self-portrait with Tube and Safety Helmet (1984) by the artist Willi Sitte from the Hasso Plattner Collection and Self-portrait (1976) by the artist Monika Geilsdorf from the collection of the Brandenburgischen Landesmuseums für moderne Kunst (BLMK).

Self-portraits occupy a special position within portrait painting because they are simultaneously forms of both self-exploration and self-portrayal. In order to produce a self-portrait, the artist must rigorously observe themselves. They often use their own reflection as a model in these paintings, so they must be able to look themselves in the eyes. In any case, this intensive process can be arduous, both literally and metaphorically, but especially when the artist lives and works in a politically restrictive system, in which daily life as well as art demand particular existential decisions. 

In a painted self-portrait, attention is given to every detail. These are artistic decisions, on a formal as well as on a personal and political level, which are consciously made by the artists in order to immortalize themselves in painterly form. The gaze or expression that the artist chooses for themselves is thereby just as decisive as the situation in which they present themselves, including the clothing and the attributes with which they are depicted.   

In the Kabinett of DAS MINSK the self-portraits are shown on opposite walls, so that the gazes of Monika Geilsdorf and Wille Sitte meet in the center of the exhibition space. Yet they are not only looking at each other, but also the visitors in the exhibition space.

The strong sense of tension between the self-portraits shown in the framework of INTERPLAY NO.1 begins with how they are painted. The style of both artists couldn’t be more different: expressive brushstrokes with Sitte and precise objectivity and attention to detail with Geilsdorf.

While Monika Geilsdorf simply titles her work Self-portrait, Wille Sitte gives his painting the longer title Self-portrait with Tube and Safety Helmet. The artist thereby draws attention to two ostensibly decisive attributes for him: the paint tube and the hard hat. Painting implements such as a tube or brush are frequently found in self-portraits, but a hard hat? Sitte depicts himself as a painter, is naked and wearing a construction hard hat, a clear worker’s symbol, or perhaps a metaphor of protection, whereby the easel also becomes a protective shield. 

Monika Geilsdorf, on the other hand, does not present herself with a brush, but in her self-portrait instead holds a cigarette in her hand, the indispensable attribute of the moderns. The gesture is not new and recalls many a sophisticated self-portrait by Max Beckmann or Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler. And yet Monika Geilsdorf also gives a clear indication of her painterly identity: like Willi Sitte, she also integrates paint tubes in her self-portrait, placed on the wooden structure behind her. Her top resembles a jersey and shows her muscular shoulders, perhaps indications of her strength and agility. Her hairstyle and glasses are of a striking modernity. One almost gets the impression that the self-portrait is painted today, in 2022, not only because of the style but also because of the aesthetic and impression with which the artist shows herself: in everyday life, nonchalant, almost a bit noble with a defiant and self-assured gaze.

Monika Geilsdorf was a member of the Association of Visual Artists (VBK) of the former GDR. Her Self-portrait from 1976 was immediately presented in the VIII Art Exhibition of the GDR. What from a contemporary view can be interpreted as a challenging view toward the system, almost rebellious, was interpreted as a sign of continued perseverance in the system by art historian Helga Möbius in her publication commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and the VBK for the VIII Art Exhibition of 1978. The subversive, modern, and everyday qualities of Geilsdorf’s portraits were thereby inverted into a symbol of subordination.

After making statements critical of the system and attempting suicide twice in the early 1960s, the artist Willi Sitte experienced what criticism from above can lead to: “What a brilliant artist comrade Sitte could be if he consistently chose Socialist Realism,” [1] was the unambiguous demand of Bernard Koenen, first secretary of the district manager of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) in Halle, in the newspaper Neues Deutschland in December 1962. In the following year, Sitte published a self-critical statement in the same paper. 1963 thereby turned out to be a decisive year for the artist’s work. A change of heart took place, caused by the pressure exerted by a high-level party functionary as well as the Stasi. This experience would henceforth make an impact on his painting. Sitte’s public commitment to the party was rewarded by a large exhibition in 1971 in Halle. In 1989, he said, “In the moment that art is autonomous, making itself independent of state and party, it withdraws from life, from people. I consider this very dangerous.” [2] This brings us back to the hard hat: Did a painting style that conformed to the system form the hard hat?

“How much ‘for’ is necessary and how much ‘against’ is possible without breaking from the circumstances and betraying one’s own roots?” This question, which was raised by the journalist and filmmaker Sylvie Kürsten in our first audio story, leaves space for many different answers and perspectives, then and now. It’s worth listening carefully to the responses of both artists in DAS MINSK because they not only tell us something about their own time, but also about the present, and they make palpable the fragility of artistic freedom, which is too often taken for granted. 

Paola Malavassi, director DAS MINSK Kunsthaus in Potsdam

[1] Bernard Koenen, “Erfolg und Schwanken Bildender Künstler,” in Neues Deutschland, December 19, 1962, p. 6.
[2] Willi Sitte in Renate Luckner-Bien, “Bildende und angewandte Kunst“ Gespräch mit Willi Sitte,” in Sittes Welt: Willi Sitte: Die Retrospektive, Christian Philipsen, ed., exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Moritzburg Halle/Saale (Leipzig, 2021), p. 292.

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